I was lucky enough to interview the History department’s most electric member: DrYangwen Zheng. Joining the university and effectively starting its Chinese history curriculum, she has been on an academic warpath since 1995. From studying at Oberlin College and Cambridge, then teaching at the University of Pennsylvania and the National University of Singapore before finally settling down at Manchester, Zheng has clearly had a dynamic university experience. When asked about the differences between her previous universities she describes some of the previous History faculties as “tribal and divided into factions.” At Manchester, she loves her colleagues in the history department they are “good scholars and good people.” In terms of bringing the rarely taught field of Chinese history to the university she states: “Manchester is ahead of the game,” and advises history students seeking work in firms related with China to “use their knowledge of Chinese history- brag about China!”
Yangwen’s talents extend beyond the historical world. In 1991, she and thirty others were chosen from three thousand applicants to intern at CNN. A career in media, however, was not for her: “I am too smart for reading the news” she chuckles. At first, she actually studied political science and opera at Oberlin. However,she knew in her final year that opera was not her path: “I want routine and stability, I don’t want excitement.”
For Yangwen an academic career was perfect: “you can do exactly what you want to do.” And she has certainly left a clear mark on the academic world- her work on how ballet was adapted in Communist China is singular. In 2015 she will be publishing her new work,‘Dancing the Communist Revolution’. I asked her about how it was to being the first to research this and she notes that some say being the first in a field is easy. This is not the case for her however, the lack of historiography made it hard for her to engage with other historians and create a conversation: “it was like doing another PHD!”To overcome this hurdle and engage in historiographical discourseshe had to examine the way ballet’s history was recorded beyond China. This led her to look at how ballet developed and became popularized in other totalitarian states and relate it with Mao’s China. “Intellectually I have had great fun by exploring something out of nothing; it’s a risk when you have to start from scratch, but if I don’t challenge myself I won’t grow as a scholar.”
On the surface, Yangwen’s study of ballet may seem like a departure from her previous work that focused on China’s trade and patterns of consumption. The underlying pattern, however, remains:“People always ask me ‘how can you go from opium to ballet?’ I tell them I did not travel! Like communism, like maize, they are all things that came from outside of China and underwent a complex and dynamic process of indigenization.” To articulate this sentiment she refers to the word ‘sinicization,’ summing up the dynamics and the complexities of the Sino-foreign connection, “how things come in, how people looked at it and redefined it and turned it into their own.”
It is obvious Yangwen cares for her students, and when asked about them she beams, “I love you guys!” She frequently talks about her excitement in helping and seeing students grow. She cannot help but “feel like a mother sometimes”. She even stays in touch with of them after they have finished university- many of them taking her advice and venturing out into the Eastern part of the world. In terms of differences between her students from around the world, she describes American students as “more eager” and “competitive”, “they don’t ask questions, they just want to be heard!” British students are more “quiet” apparently.
I notice in our discussion that Yangwen has a clear philosophy: “Constant change gives you an opportunity to reinvent yourself…the world is ahead of you, it’s up to you to make it!” She stresses it is important to grow as historian, actually turning downBerkeley to go to Manchester- partly because she didn’t want to go back to the US. “People would say I took a down turn, married below by going to the University of Singapore” but she “found gold in Singapore” and was “able to run a lot of projects and conferences, I learned from the region, about the complexity of the European empires and China’s relationship with South East Asia…I learnt a lot, I met a lot of people. I gained, I didn’t go down.”